Mommie Dearest at 40: the derided camp classic that deserves a closer look

The first time I saw Mommie Dearest, it was probably closer to its 20th anniversary than its 40th, and it had already been firmly canonised as a camp classic: at the scruffy repertory screening I attended, with an audience of predominantly gay men, the conspiratorial giggles started as early as the opening credits, and scarcely let up for two hours. In advance of the film’s hysterical high points — Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, her face greased up with ghostly night cream, beating her daughter with a clothes hanger, or growling for an axe as she drunkenly decimates her rose garden — the giggles escalated to hoots of anticipatory delight, exploding so loudly and gleefully at the climax that I almost couldn’t hear the line everyone was there for: “No! Wire! Hangers! Ever!” It says a lot for Dunaway’s brazenly deranged delivery that her shrieks still rose above the din.

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I left the screening having had a good time, while also feeling slightly left out of the joke. A generation of viewers had already rehabilitated Mommie Dearest from its initial critical infamy, and determined how it should thereon be enjoyed. I felt I hadn’t watched Frank Perry’s film so much as I’d watched other people watching it, and while there was both pleasure and fascination in that spectatorship, the film felt a little lost in the mix. Its most iconic, culturally entrenched moments delivered all the ramped-up kitsch that had been promised, plus an additional, frightening jolt of in-context shock that they never had as isolated clips. And yet I didn’t find the surrounding film as riotously funny as everyone around me seemed to. What was I missing?

A few years later, I saw Mommie Dearest again, alone, on a fairly ropey DVD, and everything about the film – and my own response to it – clicked into place. I hadn’t laughed at it because I didn’t, for the most part, find it all that hilarious; I was unmoved by my fellow viewers’ arch euphoria because I was, to my surprise, rather moved by the film itself. Way back in 1981, this is the kind of reaction the film-makers were hoping for. Mommie Dearest is, after all, one of the most despairing parent-child relationship stories ever filmed, adapted from a memoir that, however fiercely disputed by certain parties, was written in pain and rancour.

In writing about years of alleged abuse at the hands of her movie-star mother, Christina Crawford described cruelty of such excess that sceptics accused her of exaggeration, or even fabrication. Joan Crawford can’t have done that, can she? That would be absurd. The great achievement — and initial downfall — of Perry’s adaptation is that it takes Christina at her word, filming the abuse as written. Which is to say it plays on screen as excessive, as absurd, but not as a joke. At no point is Dunaway’s gorgon-esque Crawford winking at the audience at she shrilly beats, chokes and hacks the hair off her daughter, and neither does the film separately smirk at her performance. As a screen monster, she’s nothing if not genuine.

Each time I’ve seen Mommie Dearest, its most violent scenes startle me anew: I find the harsh physical vigour of Dunaway’s performance, combined with the piercing, uncontrolled-sounding pitch of young actor Mara Hobel’s screams, profoundly uncomfortable to watch, and hear. Can I be alone in this discomfort? Or have audiences, over the years, collectively decided to override the film’s gaze, making a joke of these scenes so as to make them easier to endure? Roger Ebert, for one, was rattled. His one-star pan damned the film for aiming “just to depress”; its sustained portrait of child abuse left him “feeling creepy.”

Ebert’s was only the most impassioned of many dismissive reviews, even as critics singled out Dunaway’s unhinged bravado for praise. Weeks into its release, with the film’s once-lofty Oscar hopes in the gutter, Paramount clocked that the only audiences embracing the film were those keyed into its obvious camp value. In an unusually immediate example of queer audiences subverting the mainstream, the studio rejigged the film’s marketing campaign accordingly, branding it as a kind of comedy: “Meet the biggest MOTHER of them all!” screamed new posters, to the dismay of producer Frank Yablans.

This swerve was at once the salvation of the film and its ruin: it gained a loyal, affectionate fanbase in exchange for the possibility of ever being taken seriously again. That’s not a bad trade. Sincerely conceived films on which camp status is bestowed often age better than those that mirthfully chase it from the off, and Mommie Dearest is looking, through all its layers of foundation and smeary red-meat lipstick, very good these days. It’s still a strange, jarring experience built around a staggering, one-of-a-kind performance: resisting the kind of hollow celebrity impersonation that wins easy Oscars, Dunaway instead appears to channel Crawford’s brittle stardom via her own. She was 40 at that point, on the brink of the industry dip that hit Crawford’s career around the same dreaded age. Perhaps it’s projection to say we see some her own actorly insecurities flashing through Crawford’s wild, widened eyes, but it feels like we do, especially knowing now how it marked a tipping point for Dunaway’s subsequent career: it’s the kind of big, bleeding, vulnerable diva-upon-diva turn that would likely have inspired drag acts for decades to come even if the film had been more straightforwardly well-received.

She won a Razzie for it, of course, as did the film itself – an early indication of the shortcomings of that joyless industry institution, which routinely condemns films with even the faintest inklings of a camp sensibility, though the Razzies themselves would love nothing more than to be seen as camp in return. (The legend now tends to omit that Dunaway also placed second in the best actress vote with the New York Film Critics’ Circle and National Society of Film Critics’ – the performance was polarising, but not universally derided.) And today, at least past a certain generation of cinephiles, her interpretation at least partially shapes how we remember Joan Crawford herself: Mommie Dearest offers a permanent, distorted lens on a chapter of Hollywood history that we can’t quite dismantle.

It’s hard not to wonder how the film would play today if it were released – or even remade – into a world more conscientious about abuse narratives, in which “choose kindness” and “believe victims” are new, recurring mantras. Perhaps people would still find it funny, as it undeniably is in patches. (Though it’s the film’s quieter absurdities – like its glorious shot of Crawford, sheathed in platinum sequins, descending a curved staircase while she scowls at a plate of cold, congealed steak – that tickle me more than its chaotic, cacophonous climaxes.) But one imagines Christina Crawford’s grim testimony would now be framed with more cautious sympathy by marketers and critics alike, that the film’s earnest, if somewhat unsubtle, intentions wouldn’t be so briskly swept to one side. Or perhaps not. Either way, it’s time to take another look at Mommie Dearest, but don’t go in already laughing: see where its odd, extreme, hectically mood-swinging impulses lead you first.